Why the poor stayed in New Orleans

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'Just a basic existence' Dunbar estimated his annual income to be about $20,000, which comes from doing graphic design work when he can get it. Before the storm, when he and his wife estimated how much money they needed to flee the city, he was saddened by the reality that he could not come up with anywhere near the several thousand dollars he might need for a rental car and airfare.

NEW ORLEANS - To those who wonder why so many stayed behind when push came to water's mighty shove here, those who were trapped have a simple explanation: Their nickels and dimes and dollar bills simply didn't add up to stage a quick evacuation mission.

"Me and my wife, we were living paycheck to paycheck, like most everybody else in New Orleans," Eric Dunbar, 54, said Saturday.

He offered a mini-tutorial in the economic reality of his life.

"I don't own a car. Me and my wife, we travel by bus, public transportation. The most money I ever have on me is $400. And that goes to pay the rent. And that $400 is between me and my wife." Her name is Dorth Dunbar; she was trying to get some rest after days of peril.

'Just a basic existence' Dunbar estimated his annual income to be about $20,000, which comes from doing graphic design work when he can get it. Before the storm, when he and his wife estimated how much money they needed to flee the city, he was saddened by the reality that he could not come up with anywhere near the several thousand dollars he might need for a rental car and airfare.

"If I took my wife out to dinner, it was once a month," he said, sounding as if even those modest good times had come to an abrupt end. "We'd go to Piccadilly's. Never any movies. Really, it's a simple life. I go to work, come home, talk to my wife, go to bed, then back to work again. A basic existence."

He was rolling two quarters around in his hand, short 50 cents to make a long-distance call to his son. As his eyes began to water, he repeated himself: "Just a basic existence."

The two smooth-faced boys on the floor, sitting on their backpacks, looked more energetic than most. Corey Wise, 17, and Jermaine Wise, 18, were once residents of New Orleans's 17th Ward.

"Our family was already in a financially depressive situation before the hurricane," Jermaine said.

He calculated where the family -- their mother, Marie, is divorced -- stood financially before the wind, water and destruction.

"We had $300 between us," he said, nodding toward his brother. "Mom had about $225 worth of savings. That was our emergency savings for anything. And that was a blessing."

Their home was in a New Orleans neighborhood called Holly Grove.  "A lot of drugs and violence in our neighborhood," Corey said.

"It's hard to just get up and go when you don't have anything," Jermaine said. "Besides, everything we know is in New Orleans."

They went on their way in tandem in search of their mother, somewhere upstairs in the terminal.

A 47-year-old grandmother was rocking a grandchild.

"These people look at us and wonder why we stayed behind," said Carmita Stephens. "Well, would they leave their grandparents and children behind? Look around and say, 'See you later'?" She gave a roll of the eyes behind the raised voice.

"We had one vehicle. A truck. I wanted my family to be together. They all couldn't fit in the truck. We had to decide on leaving family members -- or staying."

She shifted the grandchild in her arms. "I'm living paycheck to paycheck. My mother passed away this year. I was helping take care of her. My real job was as a private-duty caregiver. I had one patient. He died two weeks after my mother passed, on May 6." She calculated that the family made a little more than $2,500 a month -- but that included help from her son Jamel's job. "He's missing now," she added. "So is Eric Stephens, my husband."

They were soon to be Texas-bound. "And I don't even like Texas," she said.

All morning, they kept arriving, walking as if through a morbid dream.

"I got $3.00 on me now," said John West, 39, formerly a resident of the Sixth Ward here. "I'm serious."

He said he has never had a savings account in his life. "I make $340 a month," he said. "I stay with my mother. I give her about $150 of that. His income is from a disability check. His hands got badly burned in a 1993 fire. "I lost a little nephew, but I saved two kids," he said.

West said he has never owned a credit card -- not even before the fire. He said he figures $500 was the most money he could have come up with on such short notice, with the hurricane bearing down.

"And that would have come from my daddy. But he's always been skeptical about giving me any money. And his people got money! He could have given me $1,000, and it wouldn't have hurt him."

So he did not even ask, instead lowering his economic aim by simply wishing he could get his $340 monthly check.

"My mother and father don't even know if I'm alive or dead."

There were a few lucky souls yesterday sitting at the Shoney's restaurant on State Highway 30 in Gonzales. Karen Lavalais, 37, and a friend, Patricia Jones, 39, and various relatives.

"I only work part time at a janitorial service," Jones said. "I make $6.00 an hour. If I didn't have my mama, I'd be one of those victims still trapped in New Orleans."

She works 17 hours a week.

"I had $80 when I got out of New Orleans," Jones said. "And I wouldn't have had that if payday hadn't been that Friday. Eighty dollars with two children."

Lavalais, who formerly lived in the 10th Ward, said that when the hurricane struck she had a total of $94 in the bank, which constituted her life savings.

"And I couldn't even get to that," she said. "So thank goodness I had some gas in my car."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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